Washington memoirs are most valuable for the parts that aren’t about what the author did at the office. That’s especially true of this account by the former national security adviser. The riveting passages are where Rice tells the private story that was hidden: her parents’ brutal divorce, her mother’s death, her children’s struggles with their mother’s public vilification.
Good memoirs always have a quality the Germans define as a bildungsroman, a novel of the principal character’s education in the world. That’s true with Rice’s tale: She was an African American who triumphed in the elite world of prep schools, Ivy League colleges and Rhodes scholarships. She embodied the intellect and ambition these institutions aspired to produce, even as she masked a shattered family where her parents “fought ugly and often,” she writes, and her home life was “like a civil war battlefield.”
David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, describes the distinction between “résumé virtues,” the tokens of meritocratic success, and “eulogy virtues” that truly define someone’s character. Rice’s story and, indeed, Obama’s combine both in a compelling but sometimes unstable mix.
For all her privilege, Rice was famously pugnacious. In 1999, as a young assistant secretary of state in Bill Clinton’s administration, she gave the finger, literally, to foreign policy mandarin Richard Holbrooke, in a roomful of diplomats. In 2008, campaigning as a surrogate for Obama, she threw roundhouse rhetorical punches at his rival, Sen. John McCain (creating a feud about which she repeatedly expresses regret).
But she learned from these mistakes, partly after she began taking some heavy punches herself. She quotes (approvingly) the withering critique offered then by her Clinton administration colleague, Ambassador Howard Wolpe: “You are overly directive and intimidate others so much that you quell dissent and stifle contrary advice.”
People who’ve worked with Rice in recent years would say she had to keep relearning that lesson of humility, and she’s still one of the few senior foreign-policy officials who regularly drops the f-bomb. Obama advised her at one point in the White House that her problem was that she lacked a poker face. That’s a telling criticism from Obama, who could be Mr. Cool to a fault.
Rice was battered during what should have been the zenith of her career because of the Benghazi “scandal,” which, as she retells it, seems an even more bizarre piece of Republican character assassination than it did at the time. She went on five network Sunday shows to explain the tragedy that had happened there, using “talking points” that had been prepared by the CIA, and was so intensely demonized that her mother and daughter both were badly traumatized.
The Benghazi fallout changed Rice’s life, probably for the better. She withdrew from consideration as secretary of state in Obama’s second term and instead became national security adviser. And she learned to subordinate her own public persona. She describes her role overseeing the National Security Council staff as playing “point guard,” a player that “is rarely the showboat or the high scorer . . . but is essential to the cohesion and efficacy of the team.”
Rice acknowledges that the Obama administration’s foreign policy record was “mixed.” The flaws were perhaps most evident in the inability to find a policy that would avert the slaughter in Syria. “My heart and my conscience will forever ache over Syria,” she writes. The larger problem, she explains, is that “we suffered from a mismatch between our stated objectives and the means we were prepared to employ to achieve them — in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and, arguably, Afghanistan.” She has that right.
Behind Rice is the extraordinary figure of Obama, whom she acknowledges was “consistently the smartest guy in the room” whenever the NSC met. It’s impossible not to feel nostalgic for his intelligence and personal reticence these days, as the country is buffeted by a president whose personal qualities are a reverse image of his predecessor.
Obama, lean, austere, almost professorial in his demeanor, was a man who despised flattery and liked to pass the time playing cards, watching sports on television and thinking about how best to make a difference in the world. How far away that moment seems this Thanksgiving week.